Are Lutherans funny? That's not a question that obsesses the Evangelical Lutheran Church. It appears on no theological agenda. In fact, it seems to be the concern of only one individual on Earth: Garrison Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion on American public radio and the author of Lake Wobegon Days. Close study of his work reveals the grand ambition behind his career: He wants to make Lutherans a source of comedy.
This strikingly original idea dominates much of his writing and talking. Once a reader or listener notices the theme, it seems to crop up in everything he does. "Lutheran" is Keillor's best punchline, the Lutheran church the site of his best stories, the Lutheran ethos a favourite object of his satire.
Keillor is the finest talent ever developed by listener-supported radio in the United States. He went to work for Minnesota Public Radio in 1969 and he's done A Prairie Home Companion since 1974, except for a two-year hiatus in the 1980s. His program runs two hours every Saturday, a folk-music revue with comedy sketches and Keillor's personal essays. The Grand Ole Opry inspired the format, and the title came from the Prairie Home Cemetery in Moorhead, Minn. It's produced in St. Paul or anywhere else a good audience can be found.
I hear it over Jazz-FM in Toronto, but other Canadians get it on the Internet or from one of the 500 public radio stations carrying it in the United States; it also has overseas outlets, including Deutsche Telekom in Germany, and a Dublin station, 103.2 FM, named "Anna Livia," after a great James Joyce character.
Like all good comedians and comic writers, from Mark Twain to Bruce McCall, Keillor teaches his audiences to share his view of the world. For instance, Keillor believes for some reason that anything about duct tape is funny -- and he's persuaded me. He loves stories about the ferocious underside of respectable life, such as viciously competitive tomato-growing in small Midwestern towns. He believes the cold snowy winters of Minnesota are risible, if approached in the right spirit. He thinks ketchup especially funny. On his program an imaginary trade association, the Ketchup Advisory Board, promotes ketchup as a Prozac substitute. Anyone who complains of depression is asked, "Are you getting enough ketchup?"
Keillor gives each of these subjects its due but spends his best efforts on Lutheranism. In his art it plays the role that Judaism plays in Woody Allen's films, Philip Roth's novels, and the monologues of Jewish comedians. Lutherans, like Jews, are a minority who share certain identifiable traits. They can be made to appear funny even to someone who has never knowingly met one.
To Keillor they are the people for whom the word "repressed" was invented. Their life goals are modest. A sign outside a Lutheran church announces the topic of that week's sermon: "It could be worse." Keillor says that Lutherans who go to psychotherapists for help are told to pull themselves together.
They differ sharply from Jews. In fact, they stand at the opposite end of the group-identity continuum. According to stereotype, Jews are voluble, Lutherans nearly mute. Keillor has decided that Lutherans who never talk are just as funny as Jews who never stop talking.
He rarely if ever mentions Jewish humour, but his stories run parallel to Jewish stories; sometimes they are the same stories. An old Jewish joke concerns a man who spends many years alone on a desert island. When rescuers finally arrive they discover he's built two synagogues. They ask why. "This one is where I worship," he answers, "and that one over there, I wouldn't set foot in." Keillor has a story about a Lutheran on a desert island who builds two churches. Rescuers ask him the same question. He points to one building and says, "That's the church I used to go to." Lutherans can be theologically unruly.
Jewish mothers and Lutheran mothers differ. Where the stereotyped Jewish mother exudes pride in her children and overwhelms them with concern, her Lutheran equivalent shuns pride and makes light of her children's setbacks. In Wobegon Boy, Garrison Keillor has the narrator explain that he's a cheerful man because his mother wouldn't tolerate any other attitude: "Mother was a true Lutheran, and taught me to Cheer up, Make yourself useful, Mind your manners and, above all, Don't feel sorry for yourself." Lutherans, if we believe him, think small: "Nobody is meant to be a star."
In Lake Wobegon Days Keillor has an escapee from the town return to pass harsh judgment on his upbringing, having emulated Martin Luther at Wittenberg in 1517 by preparing 95 Theses to nail to the door of the Lutheran church. Unfortunately, he's been so well brought up that he can't bring himself to pound holes in a good piece of wood, so he slips his anthology of complaints under the door of the newspaper editor. No. 34 reads: "For fear of what it might do to me, you never paid a compliment, and when other people did, you beat it away from me with a stick."
There's a special sub-set of Lutherans, Norwegian bachelor farmers, whom Keillor uses as automatic laugh-triggers. They are not known for profligacy. Keillor says a Norwegian bachelor farmer can sit at a bar and nurse one drink until it gets better and walks away.
Those who care to visit prairiehome.org may purchase a coffee mug inscribed with Garrison Keillor's poem I'm a Lutheran. After boasting about being modest, it ends: When we say hello, we avert our eyes, And we always sit in the back. We sit in the pew where we always sit, And we do not shout Amen. And if anyone yells or waves their hands, They're not invited back again.
Remarkably, Keillor isn't Lutheran and never has been. He grew up in the Plymouth Brethren, a sect so stern it even denies itself the luxury of clergymen, and as an adult he became something of an Episcopalian. But Anoka, Minn., the Wobegon-like town where he was born in 1942, was deeply Lutheran. No one escaped that influence. When asked whether someone was a Lutheran, Keillor remarked: "Of course she's a Lutheran. Everyone here is. Even the Catholics."